Some way into the vicious, rollicking period comedy The Favourite, Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying to distract herself from a war with France that she still doesn’t quite understand. (“We must fight for…” – a pause, while she tries to remember the reason – “… what we fight for.”) She is sweet and giddy and transparently bonkers. She demands a pair of lobsters, announcing her intention to hold a race between them. The loser will be eaten, but then so will the winner.
There’s no predicting what might pass for larks at court. We’ve already seen Whigs and Tories betting their frilly shirts on the fastest duck in the county, and a naked man being pelted with oranges. Anyone familiar with the director Yorgos Lanthimos’s singularly warped world may find themselves wondering who those crustaceans used to be; his first English-language film was called The Lobster, after all, and it concerned people being turned into animals if they failed to find a mate within 45 days. Returning from that movie is Rachel Weisz, who plays Anne’s closest friend and adviser, Lady Sarah Churchill. Her influential position is threatened by the arrival of her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) as a
servant. She wants very much to return to her own former aristocratic standing, even if it means using Sarah as a rung to be stepped on.
Abigail’s plan seems initially to have scant chance of success. So intimate is Sarah with Anne that she can seize the monarch by the throat in a moment of discord without endangering their friendship. Sarah gains greatly from the relationship but there is warmth and sincerity in their rapport. When gout puts Anne in a wheelchair and a foul mood, it is only Sarah who knows – or dares – to whizz her around at high speed until she goes “Weeeeee!”
Perhaps Sarah is also in charge of the camera, which is similarly given to careering along passageways, swivelling frenziedly and turning on a ducat. (In fact, the cinematographer is Robbie Ryan, who brings the fluidity and earthiness of his work with Andrea Arnold.) For master shots, Lanthimos adopts an extravagantly wide lens, sometimes even a fish-eye, to make the actors look stranded in their opulent high-ceilinged paradise. The film’s defiance of prim costume drama convention represents the visual equivalent of what Sofia Coppola did when she put punk and pop on the soundtrack of Marie Antoinette.
Though the unhinged camerawork reflects the wild power struggle between Sarah and Abigail, that hint of volatility is more impressive when it’s integrated into the fabric of a scene, such as during Abigail’s night-time stroll with the Tory opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult), the first Earl of Oxford, who wears a wig in the shape of two upturned traffic cones, and wants her to be his spy. Their route is lined with, and lit by, rows of open torches, and it’s a breezy evening so the flames are licking greedily at the air. The scene gets its charge from the unpredictable fire, which brings a sense of spontaneity to the airless niche that Lanthimos has made for himself.
If this is his most satisfying film, that must be because the confines of the costume drama suit his taste for all things controlled. Part of the peculiar joke of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer lay in hearing A-list actors reciting their lines in the affectless manner of the casts of his early Greek-language films. Clearly this was a my-way-or-the-highway sort of director. His work in The Favourite is looser and livelier, perhaps because the constraints he craves are there in the material already, be they literal (wigs, corsets, bandages) or dramatic (the endless seesawing of power and favour).
The picture’s vision of Queen Anne would be unimaginable without the precedent set on TV by Miranda Richardson’s comically petulant Elizabeth I in Blackadder II. But the movie pushes the idea of the capricious monarch through the far reaches of comedy and almost into tragedy. Colman embodies sublimely the punch-drunk confusion of a woman unsure whether she’s child or adult, plaything or puppet-master. Her servants are ready with a spittoon for her to vomit into, though they would die rather than suggest that perhaps she’s scoffed enough blue cake for one day. That’s what makes Sarah special. “I will not lie,” she promises Anne. “That is love.” These women are playing a game so amorphous, though, that no one can prosper. The loser gets eaten, but then so does the winner.
The Favourite (15)
dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions